Indigenous Cultural Rights

Diana Pombo Instituto de Gestión Ambiental

Spanning centuries, Colombia’s indigenous communities are a wealth of shared knowledge and cultural traditions. Everything from herbal remedies to native food, music, art, clothing, folklore and more. But as defining as this legacy surely is, legally the communities had no control over who could use these traditions. Or how they could be used. That’s because intellectual property rights only pertained to innovative ideas and “discovery associated with an individual person”. Not persons. As such, it left indigenous communities open to exploitation by companies looking to cash in on their heritage. The native peoples had no say in how their culture was presented. They had no voice at the table.

Until lawyer and Ashoka Fellow, Diana Pombo, put a stop to it. Indignant at the lack of protections afforded the native community, Diana worked to change the legal system so that it recognized collective intellectual rights as opposed to just individual. Once these rights had been gained, she helped indigenous communities take inventory and register the shared knowledge and customs that had been passed down for generations but never lawfully owned.

Today, companies wanting to use the intellectual property of indigenous peoples must first negotiate with them. Not just over a fair price, but what can be commercialized, how it can be used, who can represent them. Everything that keeps control of the knowledge and traditions in the hands of the people who have kept them alive. Diana Pombo passed away in 2016 but thanks to her efforts and the Instituto de Gestión Ambiental, ancient communities, once exploited by the market, are now firmly in the driver’s seat.